Columbia wrestling: Is there an 'I' in team scandal?

The university has suspended the wrestling team from competition as it investigates lewd texts team members sent to each other starting in 2014. 

Mark Lennihan/AP
Students sit on the steps of Columbia University's Low Memorial Library in New York, April 29, 2015. The university has suspended the men's wrestling team as it investigates lewd texts a student-run website said members of the team wrote.

Columbia University suspended its wrestling team from competition after a student-run website published a series of messages with racist, misogynistic, and homophobic terms wrestlers sent to each other.

On Monday, just four days after the independent student-run newspaper Bwog published the messages, the university released a statement that announced the athletic department “has decided that Columbia wrestlers will not compete until we have a full understanding of the facts on which to base the official response to this disturbing matter.”

The university “has zero tolerance in its athletics programs” for these types of texts, it said. “They are appalling, at odds with the core values of the university, violate team guidelines, and have no place in our community.”

Seniors on the team sent the texts to each other through the GroupMe messaging app from 2014 to a few days before they were published by Bwog. An anonymous source forwarded the messages to the website because they felt the conversation “had no longer become entertainment,” as James Fast, the publisher of Bwog and a sophomore at Columbia, told The New York Times. The texts mocked women’s appearances, joked about rape, and used homophobic and racist slurs, according to the website.

The messages and the university’s response come as academic institutions are embroiled in a discussion over how they handle so-called locker-room talk among male athletes and the link between this kind of banter and sexual aggression, racism, and homophobia. In 2014, Columbia was at the center of a national conversation on school rape culture, when a student carried a mattress everywhere she went on campus to call attention to her alleged assault and to criticize the university's response.

But Columbia’s swift response to the wrestling scandal, one week after Harvard University canceled the season of its men’s soccer team for creating sexually expicit "scouting reports" about female recruits, shows how universities have started to come down quicker on students for this lewd behavior. The campus’ reactions also show the dialogue occurring there about misogyny and hate speech, as evidenced at Columbia in particular by student-run publications, protests, and social media.

But students, teams, and coaches are split over who should be held accountable: individual athletes, or the whole team?

Student protesters at Columbia have demanded that the wrestlers who sent the texts be ousted and removed from the team. On Monday night, protesters gathered in front of the athletic facility and library. There, they read a list of demands that included Bwog release the names of the wrestlers involved in the chat, the university remove them from the team, and each of the wrestlers issue a public apology, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator, another student-run newspaper.

Bwog said it blacked out the names of the wrestlers when it published screenshots of the texts to highlight the culture of locker room talk.

“We believe the messages that were sent are part of a greater issue,” the staff wrote in the original post. “Our intention is not to defame any individuals, but to bring up a larger question of how this sort of culture has continued for so long among students who are supposed to represent the university.”

A former volunteer coach of the team and the founder of Athlete Ally, a group committed to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, said he and the entire program bear some responsibility for the texts.

"Our locker room wasn’t Donald Trump’s locker room – at least as far as I could tell. The guys minded their words in front of the coaches and seemed genuinely in tune with the values of inclusion and respect I promoted through Athlete Ally," Hudston Taylor wrote in an op-ed. But ultimately, "they are a reflection of our culture and my coaching," he said, and "present a serious public safety concern" for the campus community. 

"Their words also present a need for fundamental soul-searching across the wrestling community, because if it's happening at Columbia, I'm willing to wager it's happening in almost every athletic department across the country," Mr. Taylor wrote.

It’s not just the wrestling community that's enmeshed in this question. College sports programs across the country are reckoning with how to confront lewd behavior and sexual assault. Earlier this month, Harvard University canceled the season of its men's soccer team, after The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, first reported about the sexually explicit “scouting report” the 2012 men’s team made about the women’s teams. The captain of the men’s cross-country team then voluntarily released a 2014 spreadsheet of its own list of female runners, saying the team “was particularly ashamed of” it, and that the team culture has changed for the better since.

Other teams have spoken about attempts to root out locker room culture. The Amherst College men’s soccer team in Massachusetts, along with other teams at the school, “facilitates sexual respect workshops, participates in campus dialogues about sexual assault and has promoted awareness projects by helping to publicly share stories and messages written by victims of sexual violence,” wrote David Lander, a member of the team, in The Huffington Post. 

"As a sports team, we have found success by valuing the ideal of doing the right thing even when no one is watching," he wrote. "Our team is by no means perfect on these fronts, but we want to be part of the solution." 

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